The Fierce Amorites and the First King of the Babylonian Empire
The Amorites, also called Amurru or Martu, were an ancient Semitic-speaking people who dominated the history of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine from about 2000 to 1600 BC. Tribal nomads who forced themselves into the lands that they needed, the Amorites were reputedly fierce warriors. They twice conquered Babylonia and Mesopotamia (at the end of the third and the beginning of the first millennium), establishing new city states; the most famous of which became Babylon. Their most noted king, Hammurabi, was the first king of the Babylon Empire.
The name Amorite literally means the “high one.” In the Mesopotamian sources from Sumer, Akkad and Assyria, Amorites appear as a nomadic people and are connected with the mountainous region of Jebel Bishri in northern Syria, called “the mountain of the Amorites.” They were an ancient tribe of Canaanites, technically not of Canaanite ethnicity, which inhabited the region northeast of the Jordan River. Amorites were apparently nomadic clans ruled by tribal chiefs, who pushed into lands they needed to graze their herds. Some Akkadian literature speaks disparagingly of them, and implies that both the Akkadians and Sumerians viewed their nomadic way of life with disgust and contempt:
“The MARTU who know no grain.... The MARTU who know no house nor town, the boors of the mountains.... The MARTU who digs up truffles... who does not bend his knees [to cultivate the land], who eats raw meat, who has no house during his lifetime, who is not buried after death...” (Chiera 1934, 58, 112).
In Egypt, the Amorites were called “Amar” and were represented on monuments with fair skin, light hair, blue eyes, curved noses, and pointed beards. They were supposedly men of great stature. One of their kings, Og, was described by Moses (Deuteronomy 3:11) as the last "of the remnant of the giants,” and whose bed was 13.5 feet (4 meters) long.
Illustration of Og’s supposed oversized bed (engraving circa 1770). Public Domain
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The Amorites lived in close contact with the Sumerians for a long period of time (preceding their ascendency over the region) and it’s possible they adopted elements of the Sumerian religion over several centuries. The Amorites did merge a new god into the Sumerian religion, Marduk, which they elevated to the supreme position over all the other gods. Known as the storm-god, Marduk came to assume the role of chief deity, and the story of his rise to supremacy was dramatically told in the epic myth known as the Enuma Elish. The Amorites also worshipped the moon-god Sin and Amurru.
Relief of Marduk, from Mesopotamia's heritage in Musée du Louvre. Public Domain
"The Worshipper of Larsa", a votive statuette dedicated to the god Amurru, early 2nd millennium BC, Louvre. Public Domain
Amorites wrote in a dialect of Akkadian found on tablets at the ancient city of Mari (modern day Syria) dating from 1800 BC. Since their language shows northwest Semitic forms, words and constructions, it is believed to have been a northwest branch of the Canaanite languages, whose other dialects included Hebrew and Phoenician. The main sources for knowledge about their language are their proper names which survive in non-Amorite text. Many of these names are similar to later Biblical Hebrew names. In the dark age, between 1600 and 1100 BC, the Amorite language disappeared from Babylonia and the mid-Euphrates. In Syria and Palestine, however, it became dominant and is found in ancient inscriptions which date near to the end of the second millennium BC.
The decline of the Sumerian language in Mesopotamia was also the time of the most famous Amorite invasion. The last Sumerian dynasty fell around 2000 BC and Mesopotamia drifted into conflict and chaos for almost a century afterward. Around 1900 BC the Amorites had managed to gain control of most of the Mesopotamian region. Inscriptions and tablets by the early Babylonians indicate that they occupied parts of Syria, the land east of Israel by 1900 BC. Already established in mid-Mesopotamia, the Amorites started sacking Neo-Sumerian towns, eventually conquering Babylon and making it their capital in 1959 BC. Ur, the capital of the Sumerian civilization, would survive another 9 years, until it was taken by the Elamites.
At first, the Amorites were merely an annoyance to the Ur Empire, but eventually they undermined it to such an extent that the position of last king, Ibbi-Sin, was weakened, and his subjects were able to over-throw his rule. By the time of the last days of the Neo-Sumerian Empire, immigrating Amorites had become such a force that kings were obliged to construct a 170-mile (270-kilometer) -long wall from the Tigris to the Euphrates to hold them off.